"Good" Players vs. Winning Players in Poker

Most people assume a good poker player is a winning poker player and vice versa.

I don't think this is right, but differentiating between them is a bit tricky - maybe more than you think.

A "winning" player is one who, over enough time and a sufficient number of hands for the data to be statistically reliable, takes more money off the table than he puts on it.

"Good" is trickier. You can be a good player without being a winning player. I know, that feels a little weird. It isn't.

How to Be Good

A couple of weeks back I did a little pop psychology riff on Zen. We mused on the affective elements of the game, looking for ways to maintain emotional equilibrium no matter what was happening.

In essence, we were looking at ways to become a "good" player. If this also made you into a "winning" player, that would be cool, but it's not necessary and certainly not guaranteed.

Indeed, figuring out what makes a "good" player isn't straightforward. For starters, good poker players have fun, and they'd better - because they're almost certainly going to lose.

Very few come out ahead over the long haul, due to differing skill levels and/or the house rake, the "vig."

Many (most?) players don't quite grasp the role the vig plays in low-stakes games where the vast majority of players are found.

In a $2/$4 limit game, the typical maximum rake is from a reasonable $3 to a crushing $5, and I've seen $6!

Add the dealer's tip and the bad beat jackpot takeout that players have a preternatural (and unfortunate) affection for, and up to 2BBs get sliced out of each sizable pot.

This rake is essentially impossible to overcome.

So, while it'd be nice to be a winning player, the truth is that most of you won't be. So don't sweat it.

Poker is Recreation

Poker is, at heart, a form of recreation. Recreation costs money. Movies cost, tickets to a hockey game cost, a dinner out costs.

We are all perfectly content to "lose" money in our preferred forms of recreation and "good" poker players view the game in just this way.

Phil Galfond
Good players think about the game. A lot.

Good players also think about the game, how they're playing, how others are playing. They read, talk with friends and contribute to the dozens of Internet chat rooms and discussion groups.

If you're not already active in one of these groups, join in. You'll find an astonishing array of smart, engaging people - and, of course, the occasional flame-thrower.

Just ignore them. Good players treat poker like a hobby, where you keep learning and look to improve.

Good players also work to diminish variance. There's a natural fluctuation to the game, and everyone is going to have ups and downs, but the game is far easier to enjoy when the swings are modulated.

Lowering variance also makes it easier to play your best game more of the time. Few things derail the average player more than a huge hit to their bankroll.

The Most Complex Game Played?

One aspect of the game that gets lost in a lot of these discussions is that poker is likely the most complex competitive game routinely played.

It is more complex, has more interwoven strategic levels and is tougher to master than any of the other supposedly intricate games like bridge and chess.

You chess mavens out there can scream all you want, but if you understand both games at anything close to a deep level, you know what I'm talking about.

Can You Win Without Being Good?

OK; now you see how you can be a "good" player without being a "winning" player. Can you be a "winning" player but not be a "good" player?

Absolutely. There won't be many of this breed, but they are out there. My guess - since I've got no data here I'm running on my own fumes - is that there are at least three kinds of winning players who are not particularly good players.

First, there are the highly aggressive players with little regard for money, ones who view the game as a deadly competition, or a parade ground for their egos.

These guys (and they are almost always men) can be long-term winners from a strictly cash point of view but not be good players in anything like the descriptions above.

Their visits to tiltville will undercut their game. The stress that comes with approaching each session with such a highly tuned competitiveness will eventually take its toll.

And, most critically, the high variability that a playing style like this carries with it will mean that this type of player will often not be playing his A-game.

Most of these "action junkies" won't be winning players 10 years down the road unless they make serious adjustments.

Then there are the unmovable rocks, the tightest of the tight. Their style will ultimately yield a positive EV so, by definition, they are "winning" players.

Allen Kessler
If a min-cash falls in the forest, does anybody hear it?

But they will not be "good" players. They are often skinflints who play every day looking to grind out a couple of bucks for lunch, the car payment, rent.

They're not having fun, and don't enjoy themselves - when they play poker, they are essentially going to work.

They have no A-game, because they are so protective of their bankrolls that they stay at B level. That's OK for them, but I wouldn't want to spend my life this way.

Lastly, There's Me

Lastly, there are folks like me. I'm a long-term positive EV guy. I know this because I keep records and am brutally honest with myself.

But I don't think I am a good player. In fact, I am a better poker writer than a poker player.

I have too many brain farts, moments where I flatline and do something mind-bendingly stupid.

When these mental lacunae happen they undo hours and hours of "good" play. Worse, I get really, really ticked at myself and end up howling at the moon like a wolf who's lost his kill.

In these moments I do not have fun and so, by my definition, I am not a "good" player.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of 'The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies'.

His new book 'Poker, Life and Other Confusing Things' from ConJelCo Publishing was just released and is available on Amazon.com.

Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

More poker strategy articles from Arthur S. Reber:

  • One for the Old Guys: Reaction Times, Decision Times and Memory
  • Partial Reinforcement Part Two
  • Partial Reinforcement Part One
  • A Little Riff on Zen
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    Chad 2015-02-14 01:09:14

    I consider myself a rock, but have fun doing it. I'm fairly solid player that make few mistakes. I don't play to pay my bills nor do I really need any extra money (though I wouldn't refuse any extra cash) And though I consider myself a good player. Can you not be consistent ROCK and be considered good?

    adam 2014-07-19 02:30:45

    all the so called experts adivce on odds and position blah blah blah. what differenciates poker compared to a strategic games such as chess is in poker you don't need a lot of thinking. poker is about reading players and tricking players. but god forbid anybody actually teaches something useful to players. otherwise there will be more strong players out there that nobody wants.

    adam 2014-07-19 01:34:41

    nice post, considering you never gave any useful advice on how to actually win in poker. all you people just talk about how you see things are. can you actually teach anybody to become a master poker player? no

    Alex 2014-01-16 04:45:20

    Everyone arguing over chess vs poker, let me clear something up. If you haven't already noticed chess and poker are two completely different games, so comparing them is like comparing apples to oranges. Chess is a very complicated game at higher level play, the same is with poker. Anyone can learn basic chess tricks to win games, just like poker. The difference is, at a higher level regardless of the game, different elements of complexity are implemented into the game. There is one thing we can all agree on, it is possible for anyone with decent poker knowledge to win a game against any other opponent based on making the right decisions.. In chess, I've never heard of beginners beating grandmaster chess players, it just doesn't happen. Why? Chess has nothing to do with luck and poker is all about mathematics and probability. It's that simple.

    Brian 2013-10-28 13:43:37

    Some interesting comments, although why has the Chess vs. Poker argument dominated this discussion? Shouldn't we be debating live vs. online poker? I switched 'from' live to online about 6 years ago, and although I'm a far better player because of it, I'm also a losing player. Online is a completely different game. Money management is almost more important than the skill portion of the game. The variance inherent in the online game combined with the volume of new and bad players makes it very difficult to beat! If your willing to spend the time and are able to manage your money well enough, and oh ya, don't forget a little bit of luck, you 'might' do well. All that being said I chose to and still do, take shots far above my bankroll range and have learned alot! More than I would ever have simply playing micro poker. Perhaps a more interesting chat could have been enjoyed by all comparing online to live poker as I have. The elements of money management and luck just just aren't present in chess such as they are in poker.

    deion 2013-05-23 14:04:21

    In chess you have to beat your oppponent. In poker you have to beat your opponent and lady luck, and she's a bitch. Im a national master in chess and and winning poker player. I can say both of these games will force you to dig very deep into yourself before you can really hope to be successful at it.

    The thing that really hurts is denial. Normal people live in denial. They suffer from all types nevrosis... ( for those who know psychoanalysis this will make some sens... ) normal people are sheeps, and their beliefs are based on emotions and then rationalized whenever reality or a wise ass like me shows them to be false.

    To be a winning player, at chess OR poker ( or any god damn game for that matter) you have to 1 : know the game and 2: know yourself. Most people are able to learn the game, but very few really know themselves. To win, you have to be willing to accept the truth whenever its right in front of you. from my experience, very few people are able or willing to do this.

    MV1977 2013-05-04 15:11:40

    Attack on chess is pretty silly, since it is widely recognized as the most difficult and complex game with only go likely on the same level of complexity (problem with go is that it is not well known in Europe/Americas). I don't really feel like explaining this to someone who has no clue (as the author of this article), but a good number of titled chess players switched to poker and are doing very well. If any poker pro (not only widely known ones, but ANY poker pro) turns to chess and becomes a titled player (candidate master ) he will likely be exceptionally gifted/intelligent.

    Andre 2013-04-01 14:31:30

    I know this is an old blog, but allow me to leave my input here for those who stumble upon it. Nathan - saying that Poker is way more complex than Chess, because you have not "mastered" it after 2 years of playing, is wrong. Do you determine the complexity of everything by how long YOU took to master it? Who are you? God? There are some things you'll master in this life and some things you won't.

    Anyway, you guys would never master a game like Poker. Why you may ask? It simply cannot be mastered. No, not because of its complexity. Its simply this - POKER INVOLVES LUCK. There is always a substantial amount of luck involved when playing poker. No one can truly master their chances for good luck else you're better off playing roulette, blackjack, etc

    Lets say you have a "Four of a Kind-Aces". Your opponent goes all in. By the cards on the board, there is a chance that your opponent has a "Straight Flush". What do you do? Do you fold with such a strong hand because the possibility exists that your opponent is holding a straight flush. You go all in too and HOPE YOU'RE LUCKY. Chess, the better PLAY always win. I didn't say "better player" because humans are still prone to error. With error aside in chess, the better player WILL ALWAYS WIN. In poker, the better play will MOST LIKELY win in the LONG RUN or he/she can play his/her best and still end up making a loss in the long run if luck is strongly not in his/her favor.

    A good definition of Poker would be - "increasing your chances for luck to work in your favor"

    dylan 2013-01-03 03:16:56

    mate that guy who said his kids beat him in poker not chess so chess is harder think again you can win as many chess games as u like try and win a big tounament in poker hands down poker is way harder u would be good 1 on 1 poker sit n go's it's like chess 1on 1 try a high stakes ring game where it u vs 9 others something chess does not have chess is 1 form poker comes in many shaper and dimension's

    Locospoker 2012-08-31 10:35:29

    Bottom line, my 13 and 11 kid got lucky and beat me at poker, but they can't ever beat me in chess.